Hunza: Pakistan’s Valley of Bliss

Snowfall in Hunza Valley
Pakistan’s ‘real Shangri-La’ is a world free from militancy, poverty, gender inequality, pollution and a lacklustre education system.

Visitors to the stunningly beautiful valley, towered over by five snowcapped mountains, sometimes feel as if they are standing at the edge of the Earth – or, maybe, at the centre of it.

Either way, they often don’t feel as if they are in Pakistan, a country that struggles with poverty, pollution, militancy and a lacklustre education system, especially for women.

Once a hardscrabble Himalayan town where residents barely had enough to eat, Karimabad, in the Hunza Valley, is now one of Pakistan’s most idyllic spots – an oasis of tolerance, security, gender equality and good schools. That standard of living can be traced to residents’ moderate interpretation of Islam, the mighty Karakorum Highway (KKH) as well as considerable support from one of the world’s largest charities-The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
Youth of Hunza Valley are instrumental in solving their own issues by their own initiatives. HGISF Pakistan is one of the leading youth-led and youth-centric Civil Society Organization working for youth-centric community development.  

Many parents in the valley say that if they had to choose, they would send their daughters to school over their sons. Nearly all families own at least a small plot of land. Residents say they cannot remember the last murder in the valley. As such police Stations are devoid of prisnoers. Civic sense of community is at its best in Hunza Valley as the locals have strong sense of ownership of their cultural heritage, civic amenities, public parks, government building and communal assets. Therefore, unlike other parts of Pakistan, public buildings, social centers, roads and  civic amenities are not in a shamble condition with filth and peeks of pan. Similarly, you will not find a single beggar in whole Hunza valley and streams are not polluted with plastic bags, human waste and decaying appliances.

Such views – and protection of the surroundings – have allowed the Hunza Valley’s population to become a bulwark against Islamist extremism, despite its relative proximity to militant strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Kashmir, a disputed region that Pakistan and India have fought wars over. “Here, we have facilities, we study and there is no terrorism,” said Haider Ali, 18, watching classmates play soccer as the sun set behind Mount Rakaposhi, elevation 25,551ft.

Not everything is perfect, of course. Electricity deficits can keep the lights out for days at a time. A once-vibrant tourism industry collapsed after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Deforestation has led to a shortage of firewood, so families must huddle in one room to stay warm when winter temperatures plunge toward zero.

And some local leaders worry the community has become too dependent on charitable groups, leaving it vulnerable to a sudden reduction in aid. Such concerns are growing more pronounced as the Pakistani government, which temporarily expelled Save the Children last month, implements strict new licensing requirements for international aid groups.

But for now, Karimabad is an example of what’s possible in rural Pakistan when residents accept support from international charities and stand firm against the threats posed by militancy.
The author enjoying his summer vocations in Karimabad Hunza. 

“This is the real Shangri-La,” Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the former EU ambassador to Pakistan, said after seeing the Hunza Valley for the first time last year.

More than 90 per cent of the residents of Karimabad are followers of the Prince Karim Aga Khan, a billionaire philanthropist who lives in France and goes by the title of Aga Khan IV, is their spiritual leader – and a major benefactor of the Hunza Valley.

Prince Karim’s Aga Khan Development Network has an annual budget of $600m and operates in more than 30 countries. Over the past four decades, it has worked with other charities to invest hundreds of millions in the valley, paving roads, opening schools and establishing health clinics and water treatment centres for the 65,000 residents. During the 1980s, in a bid to expand the local economy, the Aga Khan network helped persuade farmers to grow cherries and peaches along with the traditional cash crops of wheat and potatoes. Now, much of Karimabad is an orchard.

Prince Karim Aga Khan is also a proponent of education. According to the The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of Idare-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) and Alif Ailaan Pakistan District Education Rankings 2014 , the Hunza Valley’s enrollment rate is 100 per cent and literacy rate is 96%. The national literacy rate is about 58 per cent, with a sharp disparity between men and women.
Shahzad Roy-the renowned Singer from Mainland Pakistan is interacting with school children of Hunza Valley. An educational song of Shahzad Roy-Chal Pada- have rightly covered educational attainments of Hunza Valley.

A World Bank study published last year concluded that female literacy in parts of the Hunza Valley had reached 90 per cent, compared with 5 per cent in another mountainous district, Diamer, about five hours away by road.

“When I was in school, few could even speak English,” said Javed Ali, 41, manager of Karimabad’s Hill Top Hotel.

“Now, everyone speaks it fluently.” From settlements at an elevation as high as 9,000ft, children walk up to three miles into the valley to get to school each morning.

After middle school, some female students enroll in the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School for Girls, which teaches only maths and science. Nearly all graduates go on to college, according to Zahra Alidad, the principal and a graduate of the school.

Aga Khan Higher Secondary School (AKHSS)
Iqbal Walji, president of the Aga Khan Council for Pakistan, said the Hunza Valley had been sheltered from the extremist ideology that has taken root in other parts of the country.

“When you have communities improving their own lives and obtaining education, it prevents easy manipulation of communities and allows them to be resilient against external forces,” Walji said.

Some local leaders complain that residents have become too passive and reliant on the Aga Khan charities. “All decisions are centralised and made in France, and people are just waiting for others to solve their problems,” said Izhar Ali Hunzia, a local leader.

But Ali Murad, 66, said he is grateful for financial support that helped free his and other families from the isolating grip of mountain life. When Murad was a child, his family struggled to make money and ate mostly food made from wheat. Now he owns eight cherry trees, 35 apple trees and 40 apricot trees. Two of his three sons have graduated from college. One works as a chef in Dubai and the other as a Chinese interpreter.
Karimabad Hunza during Autumn. 

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